The Life of our Holy Virgin and Martyr Paraskevi of Rome

1. Origin, birth and education

In the first half of the second century in Rome lived the devout Christian family of Agathon and Politia. They were from among the few in those days who welcomed God’s grace and after instruction in the faith received baptism, becoming members of the Church of Christ.

Agathon and Politia were wealthy, but they did not live like the other noblemen who wasted their time and money in worldly entertainment and luxuries. Agathon and Politia’s everyday concern was to champion the cause of the down-trodden: show charity to the poor, console the sick and uphold widows and orphans. Living such a life, they were filled with a joy which which is inextinguishable and inherent to all men and women of God who struggle with faith.

However, they had one sorrow: they were childless! For many years they had asked the Lord for a child. And like the holy and righteous forebears of Christ Joachim and Anna, Agathon and Politia raised their ardent prayers to the Lord. In support of their petition they multiplied their good deeds. And so the miracle was wrought – their life together in harmony and piety brought fruit. God who always fulfils the desires of those who fear Him gave them a daughter. Since she was born on a Friday and from devotion to the life-giving Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, they named her Paraskevi.

From her early childhood little Paraskevi emulated the example of her parents and in accordance with her upbringing, she manifested how she would live her life. Her mother Politia encouraged her to undertake God-pleasing deeds, instructed her in “the fear of the Lord and wisdom”, taught her from the Holy Scriptures and brought her into the Church. That is why it was natural that Paraskevi would differ from the other children both in her conduct and in her play. A beautiful young maiden, her soul was drawn towards a life lived in virginity and holiness, and as her authors of her Vita write, “not only her eyes – the path to love – did she protect from men’s images”, but she also shunned everything which could be a hindrance to her life in Christ.

2. Death of her parents, distribution of her possessions

When Paraskevi turned twenty, the Lord over life and death called her parents to Himself. Saint Paraskevi was orphaned of her pious father and her mother and remained the sole inheritor of their vast property, which they left to her. Marriage offers, which until that time were in no way few, now multiplied. Paraskevi however was not moved by any proposal because her heart burned with a desire which was more noble and holy, the desire to commit her and her whole life to the Heavenly Bridegroom, Christ Jesus, Her Savior and Redeemer.

Keeping in her heart the command the Lord gave to the rich young man who wanted to inherit eternal life, namely “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me”(Mt. 19:21), she decidedly showed her good faith: she sold her whole inheritance and the proceeds she distributed to the poor, to those in need, to the widows and orphans; a portion of these proceeds she donated to a “community treasury which supported a home for young virgins who dedicated their lives to charitable deeds and spreading the message of the Gospel”.

Saint Paraskevi consecrated herself wholly to prayer, charity and sharing the truths of the Christian faith. It did not take long for her, burning with zeal and desire for martyrdom, to went through the towns and villages surrounding Rome and beyond, proclaiming the way of the new faith of love, hope and salvation.

Many non-believers and pagans, upon hearing her words, were astonished by her holy life, her youth, her missionary zeal, and chiefly by the message she preached. They were drawn to the Christian faith and denounced the idols. The number of Christians grew to the glory of God.

Expectedly, this attracted the hatred and jealousy of the pagans and jews who quickened to report this activity to Emperor Antoninus, telling him that “a certain woman by the name of Paraskevi preaches Jesus, the Son of Mary” , “who was crucified by our ancestors” (the latter was added by the jews). They also interjected that Paraskevi maintains that “He is the one true God”; in order to fuel the anger of the Emperor they also said the following: “Paraskevi says that the gods worshipped by you are deaf and unfeeling statues”.

3. Before the Emperor

Hearing these accusations, Antoninus was greatly angered and gave the command to have Saint Paraskevi arrested and brought before him. This was done right away.

When the Emperor looked at the young Christian woman, he was astonished at her wisdom and beauty. Using his amiable approach, through flattery Antoninus attempted to convince Paraskevi to denounce her faith and accept the national pagan religion. However the Emperor stood before a valiant soul with unshakable faith in Christ. He saw that with words he cannot in any way have influence upon her, but nonetheless he continued his attempts with a quiet and unruffled voice:

Young, beautiful and intelligent Paraskevi, with the aid of the great gods I take pity on your youth, your beauty I admire, and your wisdom I extol. And I counsel you to offer sacrifice to the gods which blessed you with this beauty. Because if you are willing to consider this, that I tell you, I will offer you many gifts. If however you stand in your faith and oppose my bidding, know that I will hand you over to such tortures that even the thought of them and the look at them would terrify you, even before you are subjected to them.” (Great Synaxarion – July)

What did the fervent in the faith Christian answer to this and similar flattery and threats of the powerful Emperor ? An answer which befits the soul which desires the heavenly Bridegroom “with all [her] heart, with all [her] soul, and with all [her mind]” (Mat. 22:37): “Do not think, o, Emperor, that with such sweet talk or through threats I will denounce my sweetest Jesus Christ because there exists no such torment, nor punishment, nor torture which could separate me from His love”. An answer which calls to our mind that beautiful and comforting homily of the Apostle of the Gentiles Paul:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?“ On we read: ““For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8: 35- 39).

4. Persecution of the Christians

Before we make mention of the formidable torments of Saint Paraskevi, we think it expedient – for more clarity in understanding for the readers –  expedient to add some facts on the persecution of the Christians in order for them to better understand the environment in which Christians lived. At its very onset the Christian faith was terribly persecuted as something alien, abject and dangerous due to political, religious or philosophical prejudice. In the Epistle to Diognetus we read that Christians “are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks“. Briefly we list below some of the more fierce Christian persecutors in their history spanning two millenia:

a) With the appearance of the new faith its first persecutors became the jews (as a religious community and nation). They crucified its founder Jesus Christ, stoned to death the first-martyr Stephan, put in prison some of the apostles, murdered the holy apostle James, while the holy apostle Paul was whipped, stoned, chased and imprisoned by his compatriots in Thessaloniki, Beroia, Corinth, Ephess, Jerusalim and elsewhere. After the destruction of Jerusalim by the Romans in the year 70 AD the influence of the jews weakened and the danger for the Christians on this side also decreased; however in our own times Chrisitanity is strongly shaken by Zionism.

b) Fierce persecution took place during the reign of many Roman Emperors and rulers of vassal territories in the first three centuries AD. The persecutions were occuring, on one side, due to the hostility of the simple peoples because the Christian truths of the Gospel differ from pagan “morality”; else due to the opposition of the philosophers who at first believed that the Christians are superstitious and slightingly mocked them; later on Christianity itself contributed to the closure of many philosophical schools.; also due to political reasons (for eg., Emperor Nero persecuted Christians, blaming them for the great fire in Rome, a fire that he had himself caused; Emperor Domitian persecuted them as means to rid himself of some dangerous to his rule fellow kinsmen, and so on); else due to rallying public opinion of the pagan priests and people against Christianity.

The more gruseome Christian persecutions in the first three centuries AD were undertaken durin the rule of:

Nero                  (64- 65)

Domitian           (79- 96)

Trajan                   (112 – 117)

Hadrian                (117- 138)

Marcus Aurelius   (161- 180)

Commodus                   (180- 192)

Septimius Severus (193- 211)

Decius                    (249- 251)

Galerius                 (251- 253)

Valerian               (253- 260)

Diocletian          (303- 311)

c) Between the 3rd and 5th century AD Christianity, whose message spread in Ancient Persia, faced the rage of Zoroastrianism, led by its priests; later on it was accepted as a religious minority.

d) In the vast expanse of Middle Asia where the Islam of the Arabs dominated, Christianity was annihilated due to the violence of the new religion; the newly-created Arab state was a theocracy. Christians had to make a choice between forceful convertion to Islam and death by “fire and sword”. Gradually regions which were wholly Christian such as Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, Palestina, Egypt and North Africa became Islamic; later the same fate was brought to the Middle East, Pontus and some Balkan territories.

e) When the Byzantine Empire fell to the Turks, nevermind the “priviliges” they were given, Christians were faced with new, and fierce at that, persecutions as a result of which in the heavenly skies appeared a new rank of confessors of the faith and new-martyrs.

f) In more recent times Christianity has endured persecution in the face of its confessors in Africa, Asia, Oceania and Latin America, but also in some European states as a result of the activities of some radical agents of the French Revolution, the Renaissance and of political regimes, chiefly communism and atheism.

5. First tortures

We have written that the Emperor at first tried to convince Paraskevi to renounce her Christian faith through cajoling and flattery. When he saw that this effort is in vain, he commanded his soldiers to use torture, all in order to bring her to reason. At first they put an iron helmet in the strong fire. When it became red-hot, the soldiers took it out and placed it on the Saint’s head. However God wrought a miracle and protected her. As in olden days when the Three Young Men were not harmed by the fiery furnace, which was heated seven times more than it was usually heated, Saint Paraskevi felt no suffering. When the multitude of pagans who were present at that moment saw the miracle, they turned to Christ and confessed him before the Emperor. Enraged, he gave instructions for some to be beheaded, and others to be thrown into the Tiber river to drown. Paraskevi he ordered to be put in prison until he decides in what manner she should be put to death. In the midst of the dim prison, the saint, who was illuminated by a heavenly light, did not cease to entreat her Lord and to petition Him to keep her unyielding, to deliver her from the pagans, to enlighten also the others “which sat in the region and shadow of death light” so that they come to know the “eternal life” – Christ – and be saved. The author of the life of Saint Paraskevi writes that at about midnight before the saint appeared an Angel of God. He carried in his hands a radiant cross, a reed, a spunge and a crown, and told her: “Rejoice, Paraskevi, O martyr of Christ! Fear not the tortures of the Emperor because the Lord who consented to be crucified for the salvation of men will help you and deliver you from all future sorrow.” Thus said the angel, and delivering her from the chains, soared up towards heaven. Paraskevi, with a heart filled with confidence and peace, continued to glorify and praise the Lord her God. The next day the saint was again brought before the Emperor Antinius who addressed her with exacting voice, “So, have you come up to yourself after yesterday’s punishment, or do you persist in your faith? She calmly and confidently replied, “Do not think, Emperor, that through such torments you will shake my soul. It would be easier for you to melt iron than to divert my devotion to the Lord. But if you continue to persist, you can test the power of my Christ”. As one would expect, the Emperor was furious at Paraskevi’s boldness. He who was vested with all authority and before whom everyone bowed their heads, his word an unconditional law, now saw before himself a valiant young woman who spurns his commands, is unaffected by flattery and threats and craves martyrdom! He ordered his soldiers to hang Paraskevi on a tree by her hair, and to burn her hands and arms with torches. But as the angel assured her during the night in prison, the Lord Jesus Christ protected her alive and unharmed. She herself prayed, ridiculing the false pagan gods.

6. An Eye-Healing Miracle

The Emperor was not struck by the unfolding miracles and did not stop to ponder and come to his senses. Instead, he was further overcome by rage. Antoninus prepared a large kettle of oil and tar, boiled the mixture and then had Paraskevi immersed in it. However God’s all-powerful providence again delivered the martyr. She was not only unhurt, but she stood in the kettle with boiling tar and oil with such joy as if she was bathing in cool water! Astounded, the Emperor did not believe his eyes. He approached the kettle and addressed the sufferer for Christ, “Sprinkle some of this oil on me, so that I be assured that it is indeed boiling. Because it appears to me that this is a dream that I see, considering that you are not burned by it.” Saint Paraskevi did as the Emperor asked and scooped with one hand from the tar and oil, and threw it in his face. He was burned and immediately lost his sight. Panic-stricken, he called to the saint, “Have pity on me, o servant of the true God, and bring the light to my eyes, and I shall believe in the God which you confess”. Through the Saint’s prayers, he received not only his sight but also the light of faith, and at his request, was baptised in the Name of the Holy Trinity, along with all his entourage. Since that time Christians consider Saint Paraskevi a protector of the eyes and of those with impaired sight.*

* Thus we can explain why in many places we see various chapels and wayside shrines of Saint Paraskevi, constructed in caves and vales where springs flow with water which has healing properties.

7. Christianity spreads to the neighbouring provinces

Following this miracle the zealous confessor of Christ Paraskevi left this region and continued her mission in other provinces outside Rome. She visited towns and villages and spoke of the faith in Christ and of the Church which He founded with His righteous blood, of life as is and of life as is to be. In the meantime Emperor Antonius passed away and to the throne ascended Marcus Aurelius (161 – 181). Christian persecutions were renewed. She was in a town governed by a certain man named Asclepius when she was arrested and brought before him. When Asclepius asked her, “Where do you come from and who is this new God you are preaching”, Saint Paraskevi called upon the name of the Lord “which is above every name” and made the Sign of the Cross. Then with meekness but also with confidence she declared: “Where I come from is of no use to you, and it brings no benefit to anyone. As to the God I preach, He is not new, as you think, but is the God without beginning and everlasting; He made heaven, and earth, and all that is in them. For the salvation of men He came down from heaven and was made man and like a man He was crucified and ascended into Heaven and He shall come again to judge the quick and the dead and render to each according to their deeds. This God I preach, Him I confess, the very God. Your false gods did not create heaven and earth, and shall perish, as per the words of Prophet Jeremiah (see Jer. 10:11)”.

8. Saint Paraskevi delivers a city from a fearsome dragon

When the local governor Asclepius heard the bold answer, he was overtaken by anger. Immediately he ordered the confessor of our Lord Jesus Christ to be brought outside the city to a cave wherein dwelled a fearsome dragon who would strike the the hearts of the people of the city with terror. The governor would offer the dragon the Christians sentenced to death. (The Scriptures and Lives of the Saints many a time mention dragons. Killing the dragon symbolizes the subjection of hostile forces to God’s divine and all-encompassing providence. The dragon is also an image of the enemy – for eg., in the Revelation of St John, chpt. 12. He is the ancient snake, the cause of disobedience, the evil one himself). When the saint approached the place inhabited by the dragon, it gave out a fierce roar and from its nostrils and mouth came out fumes and flames, as if it intended to devour her. However she sternly spoke: “O most wicked beast, the wrath of God has come against you. Behold, your destruction approaches because you have consumed many innocent victims!” Making the sign of the holy cross, she blew at the dragon, and wo, a miracle was wrought! The dreaded dragon stopped in its place, hissed loudly, split asunder and disappeared. Beholding these extraordinary events, Asclepius and those with him came to believe in our Lord Jesus Christ and were baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity. The confessor of the new faith, praising God for the performed wonders, withdrew from the city to continue her apostolic mission.

9. Again Tortured by order of Tarasius

The confessor arrived in another town and without wasting any time she began to speak of our Lord Jesus Christ, attracting those who were benevolent and well-meaning from amongst the pagans. This news reached Tarasius, governor of the locality, who ordered her arrest in his capacity as a custodian of the orders of the Emperor and the laws of Rome. When Saint Paraskevi was brought before him, he austerely addressed her: “What evil demon brought you here, to scorn our great gods and to preach some unknown and false god, who lived 150 years ago during the rule of the August, and Whom the Jews crucified as a villain, charlatan and theomachist?. The holy virgin and martyr answered him valiantly with the confidence characteristic of those wholly consecrated to the Heavenly Bridgegroom. She called upon Christ Himself who is the One true God Who summoned her and Whom she preached. She equated the pagan idols to unfeeling wood and stones and pitied the pagan-worshippers for the deception in which they spent their lives. Tarasius would hear no more. Furious, he ordered his troops to fill a copper tank with oil, tar and lead, to heat it over a strong fire, and to push Saint Paraskevi in the boiling fluid. The order was executed without delay. But God once again performed a miracle, as he did with the Three Young Men in the furnace in ancient Babylon: he sent His Angel and the fire all but died, the boiling liquid becoming colder than water. And even though many among those present confessed their faith in the God of the Saint, the hard-hearted Tarasius commanded his soldiers to continue the tortures with crucifixion. What did it comprise? They threw her in prison, nailed her body to the floor with her limbs strained, and on her chest they put a large stone plate! How did she react to this terrible anguish? As behooves the courageous strugglers for the faith. With long-suffering, prayer and raising her spirit to God. This state of the martyrs describes Saint John Chrysostom in his writings, “As the farmer is not saddened, nor disturbed, but receives additional joy and cheer upon seeing the wheat being grinded, knowing that this grinding is the firstfruits of a better beginning and cause of even larger produce. In such manner the one who struggles for the faith, who cleaves to the virtues and everyday expects the kingdom of God, upon seeing death before his eyes, is not disturbed as many are, nor does he resist or lose his mind. Because he knows that for those who lived a righteous life death is a transition to something superior and a flight to something better, and a crowning procession… For this bodily decay does not destroy our nature, but takes away only our mortality… For this death does not impair the body, but instead destroys the bodily decay. For nature abideth and is resurrected to even greater glory; however this is not for everybody. For general resurrection is common to all as all alike rise again, but glorious resurrection, that which hath a reward, shall be part to those who lived a righteous life.And needed nothing else, they had before them the words of God: “Be faithful to death and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). While the virgin-martyr stood with long-suffering and prayed, Christ Himself appeared to her, resting on spears carried by a multitude of angels and archangels, and told her, in the account of the author of her life: “Rejoice, O Paraskevi, comely virgin. Be not stirred by the torments because My grace will follow you and deliver you from temptation. Be still a little longer and you will enter the eternal kingdom, close to Me.” Speaking thus, He healed her wounds and released her from the chains. In the morning they brought the Saint before Tarasius once again. Astounded, when he saw her in full her full health, he attributed the healing of her wounds to the pagan gods, and invited her to enter their temple, to worship them and accept his gifts. Paraskevi replied, “It was not your gods which are false and non-existent who granted me my health, but Christ Himself, the One True God, in Whom I believe and Whom I worship.” However, a little later she accepted to go together with Tarasius to the pagan temple. Many nobles and crowds of pagans followed them, thinking that Paraskevi would burn incense to the idols. But they were mistaken!

10. Idols fall and are shattered to pieces

Upon entering the temple, the Saint faced the graven image of Apollo and made the Sign of the Cross. The demon, who was in the graven image, cried out loudly, “I am no god, neither is anyone of us a god. The only true God is He, Whom Paraskevi preaches…” In this very moment all idols present in the temple fell to the ground and were shattered. The pagan shamans, rebellious, jumped at the saint, and shoving her outside the temple, furiously demanding that she be put to death, lest she brings worse damage to the pagan state religion. Sure enough Tarasius immediately issued an order for her decapitation.

11. Killed by Sword…

The soldiers brought before them the comely virgin and struggler for Christ Paraskevi, and led her outside the city to behead her. When they arrived at the appointed place, she asked them to give her time to pray to her Heavenly Bridegroom. Tradition tells us that while she was praying, a mysterious voice was heard from the heavens, “I have heard your prayer, Paraskevi, and I will grant you your wish.”

The holy virgin and martyr with spiritual joy bent her head and fell under the sword. Her spirit was lifted up to the heavens, while Christians took her most fair and illuminated by suffering body, and with honors and great reverence laid it in a grave. God, honoring the holy virgin and martyr Paraskevi, has not cesaed to accomplish numerous miracles and healings which occur in the lives of those who pray at her grave and relics and petition her for her graceful help.

Saint Paraskevi’s feast day is commemorated on July 26.

By her holy prayers, O God, have mercy on us and save us!